my manager said I need more confidence — what does that mean?

A reader writes:

I just had my probation review for my new job and it went well! They seem pretty happy with me and the work I’m doing. Most of the feedback was stuff I agreed with and wanted to improve on anyway, so that was really great.

But there was one thing which they kept bringing up as a consistent issue that I have no idea how to tackle. Throughout my probation, my manager brought up that I need to have “more confidence in my abilities and knowledge.”

I have no idea what this is supposed to even mean. Like, don’t get me wrong, I try to show my skills and knowledge in my field to anyone who needs it or shows some interest but how do I “get more confidence”? My mind automatically jumps to strutting around the office as The Authority on All Things Teapot but that doesn’t feel right at all.

I guess what I’m asking is what do managers mean when they say you need to improve confidence in a certain field, and most importantly, how do I do that?

The specifics will vary depending on you and your particular circumstances, but here are some of things that “have more confidence” commonly means:

* You’re asking your manager or other people for input or approval when she wants you to go ahead and make the decision on your own (and she trusts you do that and get it right — or she trusts that even if you get it wrong, it won’t be a big deal).

* You’re double-checking things with her that she knows you know.

* You immediately defer to other people’s opinions even when you have thoughts or expertise of your own to offer.

* You’re speaking or writing in a tentative way. For example, you say things like, “I’m not sure but maybe it’s X” or “This might not be the right approach, but…” or otherwise shy away from owning your ideas.

* You use a lot of words to make your point, and it’s coming across as if you think you always have to defend your ideas or explain your rationale even when you don’t — as if you don’t trust the ideas themselves to stand on their own.

* You get flustered when you don’t know an answer right away, instead of saying something like, “I’m not sure. Let me find out/think about it and get back to you.”

* Your speaking manner is coming across as nervous or uncertain — which could be anything from ending sentences with question marks when they should be declarations to rushing to fill silence instead of being comfortable with pauses.

The solution depends on exactly which of these is happening, but in general it’s about things like:

* Believe your manager if she tells you that she wants you to figure something out / be the decider / use your own judgment.

* Don’t seek reassurance from your manager or others that you’re doing something the right way, when at some level you know you’ve been over it in the past. (That doesn’t mean that you should never seek guidance, of course! Many times seeking guidances is the right thing to do. This is about if you’re doing it on the same items repeatedly, or if your boss has suggested you’re doing it too often.)

* Speak up when you have ideas or opinions, even if someone else in the discussion has suggested thinks differently. (You need to use judgment on this, of course, and factor in time/place/roles/seniority/standing. But if it’s a topic that you work with a lot of or affects you or if you’ve specifically been asked to weigh in, you have standing to speak up.)

* If you feel uncertain on exactly what decision-making authority you have, get clear about that by talking to your manager about it — so that you’re not guessing and can act with more confidence that you have the standing to take certain actions/make certain decisions on your own.

* Pay attention to what you’re conveying with your language and tone of voice. Don’t be afraid of making declarative statements, and don’t end sentences with a question mark unless they’re truly questions. Try to get rid of fillers that undermine your point like “I’m not sure but…” and “this might not be the right approach but…” (It’s okay to use these sometimes, when you truly mean it! But don’t use them if you’re just doing it out of habit or comfort.)

And if none of this resonates or feels quite like what you think your manager would be talking about, it’s okay to ask her! Whenever you get feedback and you’re not quite clear on the meaning, it’s always better to ask than to try to guess. You can say something like, “You’ve mentioned that you’d like me to have more confidence in my abilities, and I want to make sure that I’m working on the right thing. I’m interpreting that as meaning that you want me to make more decisions without checking with you, but I want to make sure I’m getting that right.” (This one is a little tricky in that you don’t want asking the question to reinforce her worry that you need more confidence — and if the issue is that she wants you to stop double-checking things with her, it might feel a little weird to then double-check this with her. But you do need to make sure you understand the feedback. And as long as you use that kind of language — “I’m interpreting it as X” — it should be fine.)

{ 159 comments… read them below }

  1. Juli G.*

    Ask her for examples of times when she wanted to see more confidence. Examples are a great way to understand the behavior to avoid AND it helps you understand if the feedback is valid.

      1. KnowNothing*

        In some positions, you are hired in on probation – meaning that they are evaluating whether or not you are a good fit/will be successful in the role.

        1. londonedit*

          It’s pretty much standard in the UK for jobs to have probation periods. Usually the first three months, but occasionally longer (mine is six months). We have employment contracts as standard, so the probation period gives both sides the opportunity to get out of the contract with minimal notice (usually two weeks instead of the standard one month or three months’ notice that most contracts will state) in case it turns out not to be a good fit. So probation doesn’t mean you’ve done anything bad, it just means you’re new to the job.

      2. TooTiredToThink*

        Sure you can. Like I once was told that I needed to communicate with a co-worker and make sure said co-worker knew exactly what I was working on; etc… Management was acting like I wasn’t doing that. I was. And had proof. But somehow management got it in their heads that I wasn’t.

      3. Juli G.*

        That’s not exactly true. Yes, if you want to keep the job/grow in the company. But I think it’s a huge red flag when a manager has no examples and “just a feeling” or it’s super petty types of things and it would be good to get a read on the situation now.

        If the manager were to tell her “I don’t know how to describe it – it’s just the feeling I get”, that’s not actionable feedback and I don’t know how you could take it as valid.

        (I don’t see any indicators of that being the case from the OP so maybe I’m being unfair).

    1. Kit-Kat*

      Agree. There’s nothing wrong with asking for examples. I’ve received this feedback before, and I FINALLY had a supervisor this year who was able to give me solid, actionable examples of specific behaviours instead of “work on your body language” and “raise your voice” (which can be helpful but I do not think were my whole problem). It was SO helpful! Some of the things he advised may be specific to my job but they were things like participating in group discussions more, having a decisive plan for how to handle assignments/duties and communicating that plan, explaining my thought process and encouraging me to engage and even question my superiors more. I’m an introvert who THINKS a lot of these things but doesn’t always feel like I needed to share… but how was he supposed to know I was thinking of them if I didn’t? Lol so easy but true! One major change I made was just to “think aloud” when having a discussion with him such as “I thought about x but I don’t think that will work because y, we should do a because b” instead of “planning on doing option a”. I’m in a position that’s junior/educational so showing my knowledge is especially important so that part may not be as relevant to you.

  2. Amber Rose*

    Almost every time I’ve ever heard this it was because I was asking questions that I was supposed to know the answers to, or asking permission to do things that were part of my job and therefore my decision.

    But you know, there were times when my managers assumed I knew where my authority was and I didn’t really, and so we sat and had a chat about it. It’s like unwritten rules, people assume everyone knows what they are until someone doesn’t. Better to ask and get it out in the open than have to clean up a mistake born of misunderstanding later on.

    1. Ralkana*

      This is my problem! I’m an “assistant manager” and no one has ever clarified exactly which decisions I can make and which I have to run up the ladder. I’m never sure, which makes me tentative. I guess I’m just going to have to learn ask forgiveness rather than permission, and to argue my case when I get it wrong, because my company is never very transparent, unfortunately.

      1. Amber Rose*

        I don’t think I know what a manager is anymore. I used to think it was obvious. But now there’s this job.

        My title is coordinator. I am the head of my department, but I’m the only one in it. Staff assume I’m a manager because I’m bossy. I can tell anyone what to do under the umbrella of my specific authority, although nobody particularly reports to me, and I am responsible for training but not for directing work. I sort of have a budget. I do have a manager who assigns me work, but she’s said her stuff is my last priority. What is that? What am I?! *cue melodramatics*

        I actually have an official, government definition of manager, but it’s not helpful.

        1. Smarty Boots*

          Sounds like you do know what the boundaries are for your authority. The title is just a title — it probably has some sort of meaning for your employer/HR, but otherwise, it’s not that important?

          1. Amber Rose*

            I do now, after a chat with my boss a couple months ago. But I’m doing an audit this week and I’m supposed to divide staff into managers, supervisors and workers. I have a pretty good idea of everyone’s authority, but it’s not that easy to figure out what category they fall under.

            So I started thinking about what I would be considered, and I actually have no clue. And it will matter if/when I decide to job hunt again.

    1. Amber Rose*

      That’s definitely it sometimes, but I think we can assume legitimacy in most cases, unless examples are given why it may not be.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        Yeah, it’s a pretty common problem, particularly for people in the first five or so years of their careers. In this case, there’s nothing to indicate that it’s gendered so I’ll ask that we not derail on that.

      1. NaN*

        Ah, but then… Confidence is negative, so we develop all of these mannerisms as a defense mechanism. Preface things with “just thinking out loud here,” ask questions instead of making definitive statements so as not to offend, etc. Then those defense mechanisms are also seen as negative– you don’t have enough confidence! You can’t win.

    2. Izzy the First*

      Yes to asking for feedback. I’ve gotten this “be more confident” in several jobs, because I don’ta have much confidence. “Be more confident” to me was about as doable as “be five inches taller.” I found it helpful to ask for specific behaviors that my boss wanted to see. In one case, it was more eye contact. In another, as others have mentioned, it was making decisions without checking with others, and treating mistakes as learning opportunities, instead of trying to avoid all mistakes. Or it might be speaking slightly louder, as I have a soft voice. All of these suggestions have helped me act more confident, which in turn helps me feel more confident. Sometimes a supervisor needed to think a minute about what they meant by confidence before they were able to give me an operational definition. I take this approach with any vague feedback – ask for specific behavior they would like to see, or see more of.

      1. Artemesia*

        Yes many can be tentative and ‘wussy’ and unconfident – note the gendered description in this sentence. But this is almost always directed at women for behaving as women have been taught to behave and then penalized when they behave that way OR when they behave with assertiveness.

    3. Lilo*

      I will note I have given similar feedback to a male trainee (I am female). He seemed paralyzed and sometimes unable to make a decision and even when he was going the right way, needed me to tell him through it. I had to push him a bit to be more independent and that mean making a decision and defending it (and risking being wrong, which was okay at his point in training) rather than getting me to stamp everything first. I have given similar feedback to women, but it is all about being confident in decision making.

      I do try to be as explicit as possible about what I am looking for.

    4. Doug Judy*

      A few non-gender based reasons for a lack of confidence are certainly possible. One would be coming out of a toixc workplace. Having your ideas constantly be dismissed, mocked, or stolen tends to do a number on your confidence. Also someone who’s gone through a lengthy period of unemployment and faced multiple rejections can feel very beaten down.

      1. TootsNYC*

        The person I have most often encouraged to be more confident is a man.

        He has some factors that might contribute to a more general lack of confidence: he has a stutter, and he has some physical difficulties with his gait, and he’s particularly short. I often think those must affect his overly apologetic approach.

      2. Smarty Boots*

        Yes, definitely.
        Or being new to the workplace, or being young, or being old, or being a recent college grad or recently finished the training or certification for the job, or moving from one industry/profession to another, or recently promoted or recently moved into a position where one does not have much experience or background, or recently started fulltime employment, or recently moved from self-employment…I’m sure there are others.

      3. CastIrony*

        The toxic workplace thing is me. I’m afraid of taking initiative because when I tried to fix my mistakes at HotDogsandBreakfast, my boss would take over what I was doing! Now I’m asking what feels like too many questions just because I’m afraid I’ll have my task taken over again!

        It’s also why I freak out over people trying to take things from my hands.

      4. Fishcakes*

        I have no confidence and am fearful of authority figures because of the exact situation you described. I do warm up once I realize that a workplace is ‘safe’ and my boss isn’t unkind.

      5. hayling*

        Yep, I had an awful boss and it wrecked my confidence. When I started at my new job, my awesome boss had to repeatedly tell me “You’re an expert in this, I trust your decisions.” It took a while for it to sink in!

    5. Unregretful Black Sheep*

      As a female who was marked down on a yearly performance review by a female supervisor for being “too blunt”, I concur with Artemesia.

  3. LadyByTheLake*

    I had an employee that I had to give this feedback to. Her problem was the communications style — she kept sending emails with “Help” as part of the subject line — “Help — What Pie are We Serving?” The tone was always really defensive too “I need to know the kind of pie and I don’t know, and I need someone to tell me.” All she needed was a quick “hey, what kind of pie are we serving?”

    1. LGC*

      Like, I’m tempted to say that she might actually think she’s organizing stuff, if she formats her subject lines the same way. (I would…be very annoyed if I got a constant stream of “Help – X” emails, but also I can see that from her end it might be easier to search for answers if she starts every question with “Help – X”.)

      On the other hand…oh man, I really hope she stopped doing that because I am legitimately getting more and more upset just thinking about getting that all the time! Did she change course?

      1. LadyByTheLake*

        Getting those emails made her colleagues think very poorly of her, make them think she wasn’t very smart (even though she was) and just generally aggravated everyone. I put it in her annual review as a specific item that she could not send any emails that had “help” in the subject line. She would stop for a few months and start up again and then I would have to remind her again. This was years ago and I recently spoke to her new boss and he complained that she was still doing this.

  4. Ralkana*

    I am fairly new to management – this is my 2nd year – and this is the main piece of feedback my manager gave me in my review a couple of days ago. I tend to defer to him, and I need to stop doing that. I’m going to bookmark this question and answer!

          1. Anonygrouse*

            Thank you!!! Bonus – I will be the only one here with a Chocolate Teapots Ltd mug, so no one will be able to get away with stealing it.

      1. JulieCanCan*

        Since finding this lifesaving site, I’ve made it a habit to screenshot Alison’s responses and suggestions whenever I feel it could apply in any way to my life/job/profession in the future. I have an entire folder of them and when I have time, I’ll go through each shot and circle the relevant statements and put a subject header at the top of the shot.

        I’ve often thought that some of the statements would make great motivational posters and sometimes I think of funny cartoons to go with the comments/advice. This is only in my head of course.

        I started screenshotting Alison’s [potential] applicable advice because I’d be reading and would constantly think “That is a great approach! I really need to remember this when x, y or z happens.” And since my memory leaves much to be desired, screenshots are my life.

    1. Birdbrain*

      Same! I read this advice and went, “Oops, that’s me… welp, I do that… and that too…” Thanks, perfect storm of anxiety, low self-esteem and a phlegmatic personality!

      I’m getting a little more confident with experience, but I should remind myself of these tips regularly.

  5. rogue axolotl*

    This list of possibilities illustrates why I don’t think “be more confident” is a very helpful way to phrase this. For one thing, it’s vague, and for another, as with this letter writer, it doesn’t really give the advice-ee much concrete information about actions they can actually do. Any advice to “be” a certain way (rather than to work on a specific action) is liable to be similarly unhelpful. I suspect in most cases when it’s phrased this way, it’s because the advice-giver is just picking up on a general vibe of low confidence and hasn’t taken the time to think through which particular behaviours are causing this.

    1. Yay commenting on AAM!*

      It strikes me that “be more confident” indicates one of two things:

      1. An inexperienced or ineffective boss: An effective boss would be able to state, with examples, what behaviors they were seeing and wanted improved. “Fergusina, sometimes you ask me if it would be OK if you let your team go out to lunch together and it makes you seem unsure of yourself. Giving your team permission to do things like this is your judgment call and you don’t need to ask permission for these things.”

      2. A malicious boss. Most of the bosses I’ve had that identified a vague personality trait as an area of improvement were actually couching the fact that they simply didn’t “like” that person and found them irritating. I’ve typically seen it among extroverted bosses attacking introverted subordinates, but the boss I got it most strongly from was angry that I was from out of state and made it very clear that Outsiders Are Not Welcome Because They Are Different From Us and made a point of highlighting every tiny cultural thing that made me “different.” Which was ludicrous because most of our customers were transplants and recent immigrants, so it was thinly veiling a contempt for them as well. Incidentally, we lost customers because they hated her.

      1. rogue axolotl*

        As to your second point–I think part of the reason I have a bone to pick with this phrasing is that it can feel a bit like a personal attack, particularly because people who are likely to receive this feedback have probably heard it many times before in a personal context. The boss who said it to me wasn’t malicious but was rather patronizing. It’s not that I think individual things like a defensive or hesitant communication style, or excessive checking in, aren’t worth bringing up with an employee, but if you phrase it as a personality issue, I think it can feel like an overstep and the actually useful message may get lost.

    2. Parenthetically*

      I absolutely agree with this. “You just need to be a better _______” is not just vague, it’s actively unhelpful to the point of being paralyzing. It starts with “Ooh, be careful” and “Good job!” in toddlerhood, I swear, and then it never stops. I know the SMART feedback model is a cliche, but most parents/managers/teachers would really do well to make sure they give no feedback that doesn’t meet those minimum standards.

      I suspect in most cases when it’s phrased this way, it’s because the advice-giver is just picking up on a general vibe of low confidence and hasn’t taken the time to think through which particular behaviours are causing this.


      1. TechWorker*

        To be fair the letter says ‘be more confident in your skills and abilities’ which does sound like it’s probably to do with sounding uncertain and asking unnecessary questions – but I agree it’s vague.

        One time I had this feedback from a manager who’d worked on something for 10 years and knew it inside out. Him complaining that I wasn’t confident in my decisions after a couple of months felt a bit unfair given from my POV my lack of confidence was a realistic assessment of my subject knowledge – I would have caused serious issues if I went in all guns blazing and turned out to be wrong on that stuff.

      2. pleaset*

        “it’s actively unhelpful to the point of being paralyzing.”

        Oh come on.

        Yes, it would be better if the manager is more specific.

        Yes, SMART would be better.

        But unhelpful to the point of being paralyzing? Are we (and the OP) adults or are we children?

        ” just picking up on a general vibe of low confidence and hasn’t taken the time to think through which particular behaviours are causing this”

        Sure. So the manager has seen something that seems real but doesn’t have really specific advice so they should work on that before saying anything? Ideally, that’d be nice, but to characterize it as unhelpful to the point of being paralyzing. That’s a bit much. The OP is an adult.

        1. Parenthetically*

          You’re definitely misunderstanding me. I said that vague feedback like “just be better at _____” is unhelpful to the point of being paralyzing, not that OP’s boss’s feedback in particular was. I was interacting more with what Rogue said than with the OP.

  6. Rezia*

    One thing I shifted in my work emails was going from, “Is it okay for me to do X?” to “I’m doing X, please let me know if you have any issues with that plan.”
    The reason for that shift was not for confidence reasons — my boss was just bad at responding and waiting for the okay was slowing me down — but in part what prompted the change for me was my boss telling me that he trusted me to know what to do.
    That might be another way to project more confidence: less asking of permission, more informing.

    1. Prague*

      Yes, this x1000.

      A phrase I try to use is, “Boss, I intend to ____.”

      Saying “I intend to do X based upon your feedback,” is a way to get course correction without directly asking for feedback.

    2. Data Miner*

      Yes, this! I’ve asked my associate (who could use the same feedback Alison detailed) to come to me with solutions and not problems. I’ve coached her to propose a solution so we can have a discussion, versus taking on the burden of knowing the details and fixing her problems. Being “solution oriented” can also help build confidence because if can give you ownership over the results.

      1. motherofdragons*

        Yes. In my previous government roles, we called this “completed staff work.” Rather than bringing up a problem to a manager/boss and asking what to do about it, ideally the employee would identify the problem and present a few solution options, and identify the solution they think would work best and the rationale for it. The manager has the ultimate authority to make the decision, but the employee is doing the research and analysis and giving their professional opinion to make it easier for the manager to make that decision.

        1. Jennifer Thneed*

          Yup. This is related to the old “it’s easier to edit than to write” thing. Give them something to grapple with, rather than just a blank piece of paper. They might not like anyone on the list, but it’s still a better start than the blank page.

    3. BF50*

      Yep. Also when presenting a problem to your boss, if you can, always suggest a solution.

      Boss, I have discovered problem X.
      (Depending on the size of the problem, possibly say that I have found this happened because of Reason Y.)
      I believe the best solution is solution Z. Let me know if that works for you.

    4. Jennifer Thneed*

      The “presumptive close” is how one manager taught me. “My plan is to do xyz on Thursday unless I hear differently from you before then.” My workflow speeded up a lot when I started using that phrasing.

  7. Guacamole Bob*

    Most of Alison’s examples are about communication style, but it could also be the kinds of assignments that you’re raising your hand for and the reaction you’re giving to being assigned certain kinds of work. I had an experience early on in this job where I was told I’d be presenting some of the work I’d done to a couple of different groups, and I was pretty startled because my impression had been that I wasn’t senior enough to do that kind of presentation. There have been other similar examples, where I assumed that I wasn’t senior enough to do a particular thing, or that my skills weren’t advanced enough for a particular assignment, or whatever – a pattern of that kind of thing could come across as a lack of confidence.

  8. NicoleK*

    In my experience, if you’re quiet, reserved, don’t go around boasting, or perceived to be shy, you may get the “be more confident” feedback.

    1. RandomusernamebecauseIwasboredwiththelastone*

      Not necessarily. I work with a lot of people who are on the quiet side and I’d categorize them as very confident. I’ve also worked with quiet not confident people. Quiet and Reserved IMO does not have a direct correlation with confidence.

    2. The New Wanderer*

      I think it depends on who’s giving the feedback too. In my second year review, I got (anonymous*) peer feedback that I should speak up more in meetings, be heard, essentially be more confident in my ability to contribute. Based on some interactions, I could guess which of my peers said this because that person lives by the rule that they absolutely MUST say something in every meeting. Usually a lot of somethings. So they defined confidence as willingness to speak up in public, and not necessarily on whether there is something useful to contribute.

      For some people, confidence is what you project to others and for others it’s manifested in what you produce.

  9. TotesMaGoats*

    Everything Alison wrote. Every bit of it is fantastic feedback. I have nothing to add and I will absolutely be adding this to my class somehow.

    1. fposte*

      I think this is really important. The OP’s mind jumps to arrogance, and there’s a lot of room for confidence that *isn’t* arrogance. It can be hard to see the difference when you’re a novice at visible confidence, but it’s a very real difference. You can be more without implying other people are less–it’s not a zero-sum game.

      It might help the OP to find somebody whose manner she thinks is worth emulating–somebody who owns her stuff and who’s respected as an authority but who doesn’t brag or shove people aside.

    2. LKW*

      Very good point. Arrogance is assuming everyone in the room will listen to you; confidence is knowing how to control a conversation so that it is constructive; that requires listening.

    3. Yay commenting on AAM!*

      Well, depending on the workplace, they could actually be looking for arrogance, if the OP has only been there 90 days, they might not yet have realized that their coworkers tend towards BSing people. Or they’re in the process of figuring it out, and are still second-guessing their assessment of the situation.

      I’ve worked with people like that, and once you’ve worked with them for about 90 days, there’s this very awkward dawning feeling of “the emperor isn’t wearing clothes, could that be right? Am I just seeing things, what is wrong with me?” until you realize that no, you were right all along and that dude’s parading around in his birthday suit.

  10. Donita Cunningham*

    There are two specifically physical things I learned to do that helped me. First, take a second to *plant your feet*, and I mean that literally. Practice standing with your feet balanced and flat and slightly spread apart. And then make a conscious effort to stand that way when interacting with your coworkers. Your goal is to feel more grounded and confident. Sounds new-agey, but it really does work. The second thing is to practice speaking in front of a mirror. Seriously, pick a few phrases that might work for your situation and say them out loud in front of a mirror while checking your tone and facial expression. You are going for a feeling of professionalism in whatever manner works for your personality. Usually that means a lower tone of voice, direct eye contact, and a more measured way of speaking. (I’ve checked my words for gender bias and I do believe this is good advice for both.)

    1. Prague*

      Great points.

      The Definitive Book of Body Language by the Pearsons is a great resource also.

      I have trouble with interpreting general human reactions and reread it yearly as a refresher.

    2. ElspethGC*

      Just don’t take the body language one too far.

      Someone clearly gave this advice to speakers at the 2015 Tory party conference, and the outcome was some very hilarious photos and a lot of baffled articles. (Google “tory party conference weird body language” on Images – they all do that stance, but with their legs way too far apart, and it’s bizarre.)

    3. LilySparrow*

      Yes, learning to stand on both feet was 101 in drama school. Not just for feeling or projecting confidence, but because it helps undo all sorts of habitual tension.

      We all develop quirks in our posture that cause knock-on effects all over our bodies and even affect our ability to speak clearly and easily. Being physically off balance or out of alignment looks “off”, can make us feel unsure (because your body is unconsciously fighting gravity harder than it needs to), and causes all sorts of repetitive strain.

      Planting your feet in a neutral, balanced posture (not an exaggerated straddle) frees you up immensely, and most of us don’t realize how discombobulated we are until you try to do it.

  11. Lilo*

    This is excellent feedback from Alison. I would be a bit clearer, but when I say this it usually means “You are asking me/others questions you know the answer to” or “You are spending so much time doubting yourself it is slowing your work down”.

    1. Turquoisecow*

      “You are spending so much time doubting yourself it is slowing your work down” – this is a good way of putting what I’ve seen in the past with coworkers. If you need to ask someone what to do or to get confirmation that you’re doing it right every step of the way, you’re slowing things down.

      At my last job, there was a lot of math involved wherein we’d need to take one number and add 20% on to it or something similar and then input the new number, and also round it according to a set of rules. So rather than have everyone sit there with a calculator and the rounding rules, I built all of this into a spreadsheet so all you had to do was input the old number and the percentage of increase and it would spit out a new number, rounding correctly. This improved the speed of just about everyone working on the task, except for one woman who would still double check the spreadsheet with a calculator. Her lack of confidence in the spreadsheet slowed her down.

      Also, when she came across something that didn’t look right to her, she’d stop and wait for someone she could ask. But her lack of confidence meant that she had to stop and ask these questions frequently, and this not only slowed her work but the work of others who had to stop and answer.

    2. Parenthetically*

      “You are literally Chidi Anagonye and thus have gotten approximately zero things done since you started working here.”

  12. Chris*

    Because this feedback is about lack of confidence, I don’t know that I’d recommend going with “I’m interpreting that as meaning that you want me to make more decisions without checking with you, but I want to make sure I’m getting that right.” Instead, I think it would be better to go back to the manager with, “In my review, you mentioned that I needed more confidence. That’s a pretty broad area to work on, could you give me some examples of more specific things that you’d like me to improve?”

  13. Minerva McGonagall*

    For reference, I came to NewJob with completely shattered confidence-wise due to a really long and painful job search and a very stressful last 4 months at OldJob. The Impostor Syndrome was strong in this one when I got the offer.

    I started NewJob convinced there was some mistake somewhere and they meant to hire someone else. My new Boss told me at our first lunch out the number of applications and how much I impressed the hiring committee. That helped some of my confidence but what really ended up helping was making like Elsa and letting go of the OldJob and the job search which really got deep in my head. My Boss and I have weekly check-ins where I would ask direct questions about my performance, what I can improve, or new practices to implement. I had to re-learn to trust myself, which was hard. OP, if you’re coming from a difficult previous work experience it might be that you don’t realize that your behaviors are showing low confidence. Remember that they picked you for a reason!

  14. Anon From Here*

    Behold, the introductory phrase I learned to banish from my vocabulary at university: “I just wanted to say that …”

    People can hear that as “I’m sorry to interrupt everyone with my useless contribution to the conversation,” and then ignore it since evidently I don’t value it too highly myself. What starts as a stereotypically feminine way to gently edge into a discussion and allow others to save face ends up being a poison pill in the workplace. LW, if you ever got into this habit, consider getting right back out of it!

    1. Cat Fan*

      My admin assistant comes to my desk and starts every interaction with that same phrase or, “I just wanted to ask you…” And then stands thinking about how to phrase her question, which she probably could have done on the long walk down the hall to my desk. So then I sit looking at her waiting for her to finish her thought. At least I used to, a while back I decided to just keep on working on what I’m doing until she gets to the actual question or statement.

    2. Jane Smith*

      I came to the comments to rail about “just.” :)

      A few years I put the kibosh on “just” entirely. “I just wanted to say that …” “I just wanted to ask …” “I’m just checking in …” Like you said, it makes everything you say following sound tentative and irrelevant.

      Also, I realized that I apologized for things for no reason. In my mind, it was sort of social lubricant – a way to move things along and also show that you’re willing to take ownership of anything that’s less than perfect. But apologizing things that aren’t your personal eff-ups is not only weird, it creates a false perception that you’re constantly messing up.

      A third language thing – unless you’re a temp receptionist and they’re a Fortune 500 CEO, don’t call people at work Mr. or Ms. whatever. When people call you by your first name, call them by their first name. If you’re young, it may seem like you’re being properly respectful to older and more powerful colleagues (and in some very formal office situations, this might actually be a thing) but it’s more likely to make you seem like a kid who fetched up in the office by accident.

  15. Bureaucrat with a Side of Coffee*

    I’m having issues finding the right balance in my own job. I start writing something deferential and then rewrite it to be more authoritative. Unfortunately, I feel like there’s some unconscious gender bias here and authoritative women are perceived as bossy or pushy in my office. The deferential way of doing things is what’s accepted.

  16. Moxie*

    I’ve been given this advice/feedback before. For me it preceded another talk in which I was told I needed to “soften my approach” because I was being too assertive with people. I’m a woman.

    1. Bureaucrat with a Side of Coffee*

      I feel this so deeply right now. It’s such an internal struggle. I actually get further when I’m deferential because if I don’t I’m seen as pushy or bossy. It kills me to be purposefully deferential as a woman in the workplace, but I get really snippy responses when I’m not.

    2. Seeking Second Childhood*

      ODL yes. “Stand up for yourself” … vs “coming on too strong”.
      Terribly frustrating.

    3. SheLooksFamiliar*

      A long-ago boss and I were meeting about project updates. and he told me to get a report from one of my male recruiters ’10 minutes ago.’ I poked my head out of my office and said to Recruiter, ‘We need the TPS report you’re working on, please bring us a copy. Thanks, RecruiterName!’ My boss told me I was out of line for being so demanding, and that no one liked being spoken to that way.

      Thank you for clearing that up, Boss.

      1. Bureaucrat with a Side of Coffee*

        We were told to follow a new procedure in a Wednesday team meeting. By Monday, I was getting chewed out for insisting we follow it. Not rudely – just directly: “I think we should follow this procedure since this is our first project since it was implemented. Not doing so would cause confusion.” Of course, the feedback was that my all female team was being too pushy…

    4. LKW*

      I’m giggling because with more difficult clients I explicitly tell some of my team members that they are going to need to let their ‘inner bitch’ out. They need to be firm, control the discussion, and they don’t have to be afraid to use a stern tone. They have to be respectful, but they don’t have to be nice.

    5. JSPA*

      If you’re deeply confident in yourself and your output, you can be less (not more) assertive. The default ideal goal for a harmonious, efficient workplace is quiet confidence (by, and in, everyone). Now, if you have to be assertive for anyone to notice your competence, that part’s not your fault! But assertiveness and come and confidence or simply not the same thing. The fact that overconfident people are often overly assertive has linked the two traits in many people’s minds. And the fact that many men who are both confident and assertive do very well in business, also blurs the important distinction.

      But if you are told to be more confident, you are not automatically being told to be more assertive! (Nor to listen less!) The boss can tell you to be more assertive if what she wants is, for you to be more assertive.

      1. rogue axolotl*

        I think there is a distinction to be made between “assertive” and “aggressive” though. I think it’s perfectly possible to be assertive while remaining polite and collaborative, and to me it’s the term that best describes the balance between being too hesitant and being overly confident.

        1. fposte*

          Yes, I would agree. “Assertive” is “I will take my turn even if you’re trying to stop me”; “aggressive” is “I will take *your* turn.”

  17. Old Cynic*

    I remember being told I was cocky. I tried to tone it down. Then I was told I lacked confidence. It was hard to find a middle ground.

  18. Kala*

    I have received this feedback over the course of my career. I have a different personality type and gender than any of my bosses. I’ve found that the best response is, “I actually do feel very confident, but I know that what you feel and what you project can be different. Would you be able to describe a specific time that you perceived me as underconfident, so I can try to figure out how to address it?’ The most frequent feedback I’ve gotten is that they believed I wasn’t speaking up with my ideas, because apparently my concentrating face looks like an “I have an idea” face. Adding some nodding after others spoke helped with that one.

  19. Nita*

    I’ve gotten this feedback a lot. In my case, I definitely wasn’t acting confident – went to my boss for advice every time there was a non-standard situation, had to loop them in on all client calls, etc. – but it was a matter of experience. I couldn’t just pull confidence out of a hat until I actually knew what I’m doing. Besides, when I tried, it backfired pretty badly a couple of times – without enough experience, I didn’t always know what should be my judgment call, and what needed to be discussed with someone senior. It was definitely better to err on the side of being less confident, than to cause expensive problems for clients because I’m relying on my knowledge more than I should.

    But that’s a really specific situation. There’s really not enough context here to know where OP needs to be more confident, and what’s the best way to get there. If OP isn’t sure herself, the first place to start is asking the boss for specifics…

    1. Asenath*

      Yes. More context would help, but I think it’s quite natural to lack confidence when you’re young and/or new and gain it with experience. The process can be sped up if there are specific situations in which lack of confidence is particularly obvious – asking for approval for routine work too frequently, using turns of phrases that signal uncertainty – but for this to happen, you need to know exactly what it is your manager has noticed.

  20. Seeking Second Childhood*

    There is a vocal mannerism that we’re even hearing on NPR where the final syllable of a sentence drifts UP instead of down. That is standard English accenting for a question.
    So for many people, it sounds like the speaker is asking for reassurance.

    Listen to yourself talk — if you can record a meeting or phone call to hear your actual speech patterns when you’re focused on content, it is more likely to be natural. (But given privacy rules, get people’s OK before recording calls.)

    1. Seeking Second Childhood*

      This by the way is expanding on Alison’s comment “don’t end sentences with a question mark unless they’re truly questions”. Because the speakers are definitely making statements…and that little up-drift makes it sound like they are not.

      This vocal up-draft is particularly difficult for people who learned English as an adult, because standard English rules teaches that it turns a statement into a question.

      Think about a clerk verifying your info in their system: “Your name is Seeking? Your daughter is NotNamedHere?” etc. That’s what I mean by “up-draft”.

      1. BadWolf*

        I just binge watched the show Good News and the main character ends up stuck in a loop of up-draft — “But I don’t talk like that?” “Oh no, I can’t stop?”

      2. Close Bracket*

        It’s called up speak. Do some reading on the gendered nature of up speak and why telling people not to do it is problematic.

    2. fposte*

      Uptalk is “standard English” in some places, so I wouldn’t overfocus on it, but the advice to pay attention to how you speak is good. In general, it’s better to make conscious choices even if that choice is to, say, leave uptalk alone but quit with prefacing phrases like “This could be a dumb question, but . . . “

      1. Anon From Here*

        Uptalk is “standard English” in some places

        Can confirm. I’m on a project with a team in Canada, and even for Canada, people in this region use a lot of uptalk. They’re perfectly professional and competent in what they’re doing. But it would be unfortunate if I were to carry a prejudice against uptalk into our working together.

          1. BeeJiddy*

            NZer here. Can confirm it is exceedingly common here, but there is a lot of variation in rise. A local professor who specialises in linguistics wrote a book about it, called “Uptalk”. It’s probably more of interest to Nzers due to its focus on NZ/Australian speech patterns but overall it’s really interesting.

            1. Bulbasaur*

              Also NZer. Common is relative. The large majority of people don’t do it, but enough do that I’m rarely surprised if I encounter it.

              My brother does it a lot. He seems to use it as verbal shorthand for checking in with the listener, the way some people might add “You know?” at the end of a sentence if they want to confirm that the other party understands them. He’s the only one in my immediate family who does it, so I guess he picked it up from his peer group.

              1. Jennifer Thneed*

                Oh that’s interesting, since in the US it’s seen as very gendered. (I don’t know that it’s actually used more by young women, but that’s what people think.)

    3. LKW*

      Yes and I find this very common with younger folks who are generally seeking common understanding and approval. It’s tough to reverse years of speaking this way, but it can be done. Just like removing “Ums, Ahhs, and You Knows and Right?” from your patter.

      For my younger team members, I’ll give them opportunities to present in meetings and I’ll practice with them, helping them understand how to deliver clear messages, pause for comments, check in for feedback without rushing.

      1. JSPA*

        It’s actually also a sociological thing that some young people use consciously or by following those who are doing it consciously) to signal that they are woke, aware, aware of and avoiding their “privilege” and/or avoiding imposing their interpretations and preferences on others.

        They can (as you might expect, thinking about it) be excellent co-workers–and excellently productive and creative–if you don’t get bogged down in what you assume their delivery means, about their confidence and competence. And if you expect to have clients who are themselves in that demographic, you may want to actually welcome someone who speaks the language.

        1. JSPA*

          When it grates on my nerves I try to think of it as the “not going to turn into a raving a-hole when I get a couple of promotions” inflection.

          I’m sure it’s not an ironclad guarantee (because nothing is). But so far I’m modestly optimistic.

        2. many bells down*

          I teach public speaking to middle-schoolers and the ones that uptalk are almost universally unaware of it. It’s mostly girls but I have definitely had boys do it too. I’ve had to record and play it back to them before they realized they were actually doing it.

          1. JSPA*

            There are multiple sources of upspeak.

            I’m commenting on only one such: among pre-professional / post-college 20-somethings.

            This would also be outside the up speak centers (either swedish / norwegian heritage-based or the n-th iteration of valley-girl speak by way of BH90210), which all seem to block out other usages. If you’re in MN, you probably get a lot less milage using it as an attitude marker!

    4. SheLooksFamiliar*

      Up-speak drives me nuts. When people tell me things like ‘I suggest you get the database in mauve? Because it holds more RAM? And it’s easy to install?’ I’ve been known to ask, ‘Are you sure?’ Not proud of it, and they didn’t get the implication, anyway.

  21. nnn*

    Two things I’ve found useful:

    1. When I’m less than completely confident in what I’m saying, I find it useful to be specific about how confident I am or am not, or why I am that confident. For example, instead of “I’m not sure, but maybe it’s X”, I’ll say “I remember reading somewhere that it’s X” or “My visceral reaction is that it’s X, but I can’t immediately cite a source.” This also creates a framework in which I can say definitively “It’s X” when I’m certain. (And, if pressed, can elaborate with “It’s X. I ran the tests myself.”)

    2. With any change in the initiative/deference balance, I’ve found it useful to say to my boss “I’m going to err on the side of X – let me know if I start overstepping.” So LW could say something like “Based on our earlier discussion about confidence, I’m going to err on the side of assuming I know what I’m doing/I’m entitled to make decisions/[whatever’s applicable]. If I start overdoing it, let me know and I’ll adjust accordingly.” The lovely thing about this approach is tangibly demonstrates you are diligently working to act on your manager’s feedback, but, if anything goes wrong, it puts the onus back on the manager to fix the problem. For example, if you overdo the whole confidence thing and become an arrogant jerk, it’s on your manager to tell you to scale back, per your agreement. If your attempts to be more confident aren’t addressing what your manager had in mind, it’s on them to give you more specific feedback because you have already demonstrated that you’re working on it to the best of your abilities.

  22. TootsNYC*

    I often encourage people who work for me to be more confident, to be stronger.

    I try to be specific with examples.

    Some of them have been:
    –you apologize too much! It wastes time, it makes me feel that somehow we’ve managed to make you think you don’t belong here. Don’t spend 5 sentences saying you’re sorry you’ve interrupted me. You are absolutely entitled to interrupt and to discuss these things! And also, if you -are- going to interrupt me, make your question succinct.

    –“here is the kind of change that I want you to feel you can make without asking me about it. You know you’re right, you know it needs to change; make it so.”
    (I tend to couple this one with some credible evidence for why I will trust their judgment)

    And yes, ask for more detail. Ask your manager to describe a situation in the past, and also ask them to alert you in the moment, going forward.

    1. Des*

      Agree! I think that first point is a huge problem in my workplace. Just interrupt for goodness sake no one cares. I find effective communication is always lacking in people perceived as non-confident. They tend to creep around the workplace, talk softly and say things such as ,’It was just a fluke I hit the sales target for the week’.

    2. TootsNYC*

      (also, it’s less that I want your question to be succinct, but that I don’t want you to spend my time on having to listen to you apologize. And then if I try to cut off the apology, it looks like I don’t want to be interrupted at all!)

  23. SheLooksFamiliar*

    I wish OP’s manager had said something more encouraging like, ‘Don’t be afraid to show us what you can do, make this role your own!’ instead of ‘Be more confident.’ I’d like to think OP Boss meant the former.

    1. fposte*

      I think the OP’s encouragement comes from the fact that this was overall a very positive review. In regularized reviews, it’s pretty standard for the feedback to be straightforward about “Here is an area you were weak on and in which you could improve,” and I think reframing it as an encouragment risks muddying the feedback. It should have been more specific, and it’s fine for the manager to be encouraging in addition, but the clarity is valuable.

      1. SheLooksFamiliar*

        I understand that the OP felt this was an overall positive review, and also understand the messaging people tend to use in performance reviews – I have 30+ years in HR, and acknowledge that ‘reviewspeak’ exists.

        But being told ‘be more confident’ is not clear nor helpful feedback – it’s caused the OP some confusion about what Boss actually expects. Boss did not give OP examples of when they were not confident, nor what Boss expected or encouraged. It’s vague and confusing feedback, and I still think OP would have been better served with ‘don’t be afraid to own your job!’ or something like it instead of ‘be more confident.’ Minor distinction with a difference in my mind.

        1. fposte*

          As I said, I fault it for lack of specifics too. But I disagree with you on faulting it for being insufficiently encouraging. I don’t think encouragement is its job there; clarity is.

          1. SheLooksFamiliar*

            And I disagree that Boss’s comment offered meaningful clarity. But that’s why I like the comments section – it’s interesting to see how people see things so differently!

            1. fposte*

              To be clear :-), I didn’t say it did offer meaningful clarity–I said the opposite. I think the boss needed to be clearer, but I don’t think she needed to be more encouraging. (Though being clearer can sometimes be more encouraging on its own, which may be what you were meaning.)

        2. Elsajeni*

          I think the issue is, it’s both important that the feedback be clear about what the boss wants you to do — which “be more confident” isn’t — AND it’s important that it be clear that it is feedback, which “be more confident” is. I think “Don’t be afraid to show us what you can do” is equally unspecific about what to do differently, and also harder to recognize as meaning “I’m telling you about a problem that I expect you to fix.”

  24. Sara without an H*

    Hello, OP: I think you need to schedule a follow-up meeting with your manager and ask her to provide you with some more specific guidance. “Be more confident” is a little like “be more professional” — it can mean a lot of different things depending on the context.

    It might help to ask for some specific instances in which your manager felt that your presentation demonstrated lack of confidence. Do you start all your remarks with an apology? Do you punt decisions back to your manager that are within the scope of your job? Assure her that your determined to act on her feedback, then try to tease out what specifically is bothering her.

  25. JB*

    When I started working, I was basically terrified of everyone and everything (due to some valid reasons I won’t get into…). If I received instructions, I would be too scared to ask questions. If I didn’t hear someone clearly, I would just agree with whatever they said so that I could end the conversation quickly. This led to all kinds of problems.

    For example, someone might tell me to use a piece of equipment and I would sit there for twenty minutes trying to figure it out instead of admitting I didn’t know how it worked. Or I would agree to something I didn’t hear or didn’t understand, and end up giving them bad information. Or I might see someone doing something I knew was stupid or incorrect, but I was so scared and so uncertain that I would keep quiet rather than point out the problem.

    I thought being ‘confident’ meant I had to put on a mean face and act like I knew what I was doing, because if anyone saw that I didn’t understand things they would judge me for it. I didn’t understand that a confident and self-aware person is able to say, “I don’t get this, we need to talk about it,” while it’s the unconfident, frightened person who tries to bluff their way through life.

  26. Bunny Girl*

    Assertiveness training should be part of a lot of customer facing business models. At OldJob, I was in charge of reviewing a certain type of application and form, but I was not the customer facing person. We had councilors who would do that. And so many would come back and they would ask for clarification on something, and it was frustrating because they knew the policy, and didn’t actually need it clarified, but the customer was pushing and pushing so much that they felt they needed to come back and talk to me about it, when if they had just said NO it would have been a lot simpler.

    1. nnn*

      Building on this, customer-facing employees should be explicitly instructed about when they’re allowed to make customers unhappy for the purpose of enforcing policy, and when they’re allowed to bend policy for the purpose of making customers happy.

      Back in my customer-facing days, I was never instructed on this, and my judgement calls always ended up being wrong. So, because my judgement calls ended up being wrong, I would try to get a manager to make the call, and then the managers would be unhappy that I was interrupting them.

  27. ThankYouRoman*

    I’ve never strutted around and never had my confidence questioned. I am the one everyone runs to when the bull is loose and someone needs to grab it by the horns. Even now that I’m not in a true management role.

    Alison has broken this down wonderfully.

    Most often we deal with similar stuff day in and day out. So after you know your role, you would hopefully know after awhile when you need to stop asking permission on most tasks.

    Granted many come from a much different background of being in school or in a line of work where you need to fall in line and there’s little question of where your authority stops.

    By finding the balance and not asking, just doing, I’ve gotten to where I am. A professional millennial woman in a male dominated industry.

    I suggest after asking once when things are new, you include a “if this happens again, should I ask you or is it okay to just use this as a standard?”

    As an example. I’ve written off so much crap other accountants sat and suffered over for years. I come in and clean the accounting gutters of all the accumulated short pays or inappropriate discounts taken etc. If I see something that’s a substantial amount then I immediately ask my boss. Then we discuss “what’s your threshold? I’ve been writing off under $5…”

    It comes down to knowing how to find answers within your notes, procedure documents and historical records as well. Nobody knows that I’m not actually an encyclopedia, I research heavily for how things are done without asking a soul. But, that’s assuming you’ve got procedure docs and took physical notes during training. Often that’s not the case, so you ask and it pings as not having confidence in your ability to fall back on knowledge you should have at your disposal.

  28. Jaybeetee*

    Yeah, my first instinct is that “be more confident” would refer to something like asking questions when you do actually know what to do, a lot of “is this right?”, “Is this okay?” type stuff. But OP’s manage is the best person to answer specifically what they mean by that. In a professional situation it often does come over time, as you feel more and more like you know what you’re doing in the job. When you’re new, or younger, or entry-level, or what have you, it can be hard to carry yourself confidently when interacting with more experienced/senior colleagues.

    I hope OP works in a healthier workplace that helps build confidence too – not chewing people over for every error, micro-managing, never praising but pointing out problems. Maybe it’s just my own experience, but I found employers that treat you like a child and lower the boom every time you screw up, do seem to have some overlap with employers that want you to “show more confidence”.

  29. Orange You Glad*

    “My mind automatically jumps to strutting around the office as The Authority on All Things Teapot but that doesn’t feel right at all.”

    If your job is to be the authority on all things teapot, then yes that is how you should act when working with others coming to you for teapot information. You don’t need to “strut” around, just act as if you are 110% confident in every statement you make (even if you are not).

  30. Indigo a la mode*

    It sounds like you’re early in your career. I’m about four years into mine, 2.5 years into full-time office work, so we’re on a similar playing field. About two years ago, I had my first momentous occasion where someone came to me with a request, I looked around to find the subject-matter expert to defer to or run the task by…and then I realized with a jolt that that was me. I was the subject-matter expert. People would trust my final word on this task. That was a bit of a scary notion–when you’re young and junior in the company, there’s definitely a sense that you should defer to people who seem to be in charge. But it was also liberating and gratifying to discover that people trusted me to own my job, despite my age and relative inexperience. From then on, I was much more confident in taking on tasks, offering opinions, and phrasing things in a way that showed that I knew what I was doing–because they already knew I was competent!

    Hopefully my anecdote helps. Basically, you were hired for a reason, and they trust you–and need you–to own your job. I think asking your manager to narrow in on what makes you appear unconfident will help you tailor your approach. Keep killing it!

  31. Trout 'Waver*

    I have a couple colleagues that have made the not-confidant to confidant transition. In the cases I’ve seen, it came with a sense of ownership. They went from sitting around waiting for work to be assigned to proactively solving problems and creating their own area of expertise.

    In one case, we had a shy guy straight out of college. He didn’t interact with his colleagues hardly at all. He did excellent work, but people didn’t recognize it because of how little he interacted with people. Now, he’s still an introvert, but he gets along well with his colleagues and engages in both small talk and work discussion. He’s rightfully seen as a top performer in the department.

  32. Earthwalker*

    It might not be any fault of character. If you were trained by a micromanager in the past, you might have been taught that it’s important to update a manager or clear decisions with a manager in a way that your present manager misunderstands as lack of confidence. But the advice of other folks here works for that: clarify what your current manager does and doesn’t want to see from you. I like to ask for examples of the sorts of behavior that led to the constructive comment, which sometimes helps, although feedback cycles being what they are, often the manager says, “There was something six months ago but I can’t remember now.”

    1. fposte*

      To be clear, I don’t think anybody’s considering it a fault of character whatever the circumstance. It can be hard to know what’s appropriate ownership and what’s arrogance, especially when you’re early in your career, and getting feedback to recalibrate is pretty common.

  33. GreenDoor*

    I know when I’m new to a job, I lay low, observe, try and get a feel for the cultural nuances of that particular office, a feel for who’s who, personality quirks, plus just doing more listening and a lot less shooting my mouth off like I know it all. If OP is the same, that may be perceived as a lack of confidence, which would, of course, go away after a few more months of getting a solid feel for what’s what. But, it’s a smart idea to ask for clarification as many others have suggested.

  34. Nick*

    I hate that this only came up in the context of an evaluation. I’ve both received this feedback from my supervisors and given this feedback to staff that I manage. As far as I’m concerned, this should be something that’s addressed in the moment. “No, I’m not going to review your report for accuracy because I know that you’re perfectly capable of completing this without my input” when the offense occurs is better than six months later being told to “be more confident.”

    1. I can relate*

      THIS. I was surprised when I first heard it from one of my supervisors at Old Job. She elaborated by stating that she was disappointed that I didn’t contribute to the meeting about Y. Meanwhile, she had me take notes in the meeting so I was busy writing down what was being said. By the time I thought of an idea, it had already been said. I also don’t believe in “saying something just to say something.”

      The kicker was, I was told by a different manager at the same company that I was too abrasive with vendors because I would start emails like “Where are we with producing the blue teapots?”

      Everything came full circle a few years back at Current Job when the front desk person kept saying that she didn’t have any good ideas in a meeting but in reality is, she had many good ideas. In fact, one of her ideas ended up winning. Right after the meeting, I told her that by saying she didn’t have good ideas, it made it seem like she didn’t have any confidence and she does have a lot to contribute.

  35. Tammy*

    When I started in my first job at CurrentCompany, I was coming out of an unhealthy marriage where my ex and I had been running a business together. As you can imagine, this really damaged my confidence. My first boss here kindly took me aside and said, “I need you to know that one of the reasons I hired you is because – with your experience – I trust your judgment. And I can’t be the bottleneck for every decision you have to make. So I need to tell you something, and I need you to believe me: If you make a decision about something, and it’s a rational decision, I’ve got your back on it, even if we later have to change direction in response to new information.” And then he demonstrated that by actually having my back.

    It was a huge confidence builder, and a huge leadership lesson, and it’s one I try now to mirror with my team. (I’ve moved from a technical individual contributor role to a Senior Manager for a team of about 25). One example: I was given authority to manage an intern for a project that had gotten stuck under a former boss’s management. About 10 minutes after I was given that authority I went to the person my intern was supposed to be working with, said “I apologize for not managing this well enough. I’m sorry, and please tell me what we need to do to get it moving again.” When I told the intern about that conversation, she started to apologize to me for having to take the hit for her mistake. I told her, “I’m not telling you this because I want you to feel bad and apologize. I’m telling you this because, when I say I have your back, I need you to know I mean it. Now, let’s talk about what we have to do to get this back on track.”

    I’m still in contact with this intern, and she’s told me more than once what a powerful career lesson that experience was for her.

  36. Quinalla*

    This is something I worked on a lot this year. For me, it was two main things that I attacked from several different angles:
    1. Having more confidence in myself.
    2. Conveying the confidence to others.

    Number 1, if I wasn’t 100% sure, I would often hedge or hesitate when really, 99% is good enough for a lot of things. Most of my colleagues are good with way less than that, especially the white dudes. 50-75% is good enough for them a lot of times. Now I’m not good with that low, but I’ve stopped second guessing things that really, I do know.

    Number 2 was the bigger one for me as even on things I am very confident on, I was conveying that I wasn’t to others. I realized some of it, but didn’t realize all of it and really have been working on my language and also body language/tone. Some language I was using to soften things because of the no-win situation with being a woman, but I’ve changed that up to where I have added more warmth to communications, but made sure the meat of the message is clear and does not come across as wishy-washy. This is easiest to start fixing in email since you can re-read it. For verbal, I try to pick one phrase and work on it for a few weeks, then once that is pretty down, move onto the next. One example is ending something I said with “Does that make sense?” This really makes it sound like you weren’t sure about anything you just said. A better phrase is something like “What are your thoughts?” or “Any questions or concerns?” which opens it up for feedback, but doesn’t make it sound like you aren’t sure what you just said is right. Apologizing when it isn’t necessary is also a huge one. Don’t say “I’m sorry” when you really mean “Excuse me” or just as an opener when it is awkward.

    I don’t recall which chapter, but Tara Mohr’s “Playing Big” has a whole chapter on it that I highly recommend with good examples of before and after emails and how to add warmth while still conveying confidence. She also has a “Before you hit send” checklist that is really great. Great book overall, but that part really helped me.

  37. TechWorker*

    I agree with all of this & it’s feedback I’ve gotten and am still working on.

    Two things I find useful:
    – if you’re writing an email then go back at the end and remove any ‘I think that’, ‘probably’, ‘maybe’ (if the case is actually you’re about 95% certain of an idea, most people just put that across as ‘certain’)
    – if you want feedback from your manager or a second opinion on a decision it can be useful to phrase it as ‘there’s option a & option b. I think we should go with b, because ’, rather than ‘there’s option a and option b, what should we do?’. Even if your manager has final say, if it’s something you’ve looked into then they care about your opinion, plus if it’s something they actually don’t have time to care about they can just ack your decision rather than having to fully think through the consequences of the options. And it definitely makes you look more confident :)

  38. Penny*

    I would also add to watch “up talking”. Ending sentences on an up note, like a question. I hear this a lot in younger women that I work around and even if their points are solid and exact, the way the sentences end always make them sound unsure about what they’re saying. This includes “isms” such as “like”, too many “ummmm”s, etc. anything that makes what you’re saying sound very casual and not very confident should be closely monitored and done away with as much as possible in the work environment. My office is casual enough where that doesn’t always matter much, especially among younger marketing initatives and things like that, but when presenting to higher ups, responding with “ok cool” can sometimes be off-putting to people who might be listening for a certain level of professionalism.

  39. Bulbasaur*

    I’ve received this feedback in the past. In my case it was because the manager had observed that I had deferred to someone in a meeting rather than advancing my point of view. It was during a client meeting, the other guy was a senior third party consultant and domain specialist, and I was very junior at the time. I had spotted a logical problem with his approach that meant it wasn’t going to work, but it was quite complex and difficult to explain, and I was having a tough time doing it as the consultant kept pushing back aggressively. At one point I tried to disengage and asked my manager/tech lead (who was in the meeting) if I could explain it to him offline. The tech lead said firmly that he wanted to continue the conversation until everyone was satisfied and that this meeting was the correct forum for it, and asked me to continue explaining. Eventually (with his support) I managed to get the point across, the consultant understood the issue and agreed with it, and we were able to fix it.

    Later he told me that in situations like that when I was sure I was right and could back it up, I shouldn’t allow myself to be put off by seniority, who had the loudest voice or whatever and should state my case by whatever means necessary. It’s probably true that if he hadn’t been in the meeting, I wouldn’t have done it myself and we would have ended up wasting time pursuing the wrong approach.

    (Incidentally, the consultant was the type that is always supremely confident of themselves, whether or not it’s actually justified. When I finally got the point across he jumped in a nanosecond from “Of course this will work, your criticism isn’t valid” to “Of course this won’t work and we’ll need to do X instead” without ever acknowledging the reversal or my part in it, or suffering any kind of dent in his overall assurance).

  40. matcha123*

    Why does “I’m not sure, but I think…” always get tagged as unconfident?
    I don’t want to go and say, “Yes. The answer is this.” and then have it come back with me being wrong. And I generally do not trust coworkers who authoritatively state that their answer is the correct one. Especially with so many possibilities out there, theirs is one of MANY potential correct answers (in my line of work that deals with writing).

    From my view, I am giving the answer or idea that I think is the one that best fits the problem at hand, while acknowledging that there is the potential for another, better idea. Why is that off-putting? I DON’T have 100% confidence that my idea is the best one, and I’m sure that other people can’t be 100% certain that theirs are any better, why pretend?

    1. Japan anon*

      (I think) It’s because there are some people, like you and I, who like to couch our ideas unless we are absolutely, 100%, looking at the data right now and this is what it says, sure. 99.977% sure or below (probably) gets an “I think” or other qualifier.

      (I think) Some people (seem to) have a lower threshold for when qualifiers are needed. So if they are 60% sure, they will (likely) drop any qualifiers and it comes across as fact.

      I am (pretty) sure you’re in Japan, so you (probably) know Japanese has many words to indicate how sure information is, whether the information was read/seen/heard, etc. This (might) affects your barometer for when qualifiers are necessary as well.

      I went through and marked all my qualifiers. Without them it sounds pretty declarative and indicates how sure I actually feel. But I feel more comfortable with them in, on the off chance I’m wrong or there are possibilities I don’t know about.

      1. nnn*

        Building on this, I often find it’s more productive to use “I think” and similar qualifiers to avoid unnecessary argument.

        Some people are inclined to argue with an absolutist declarative statement if they can think of an exception, even when it’s irrelevant to what’s trying to be achieved.

        Me: “Men and women have different size feet, so our shoe beta-testing group needs to include both men and women.”
        Arguer: “Nuh-UH! My wife and I have the same size feet!”

        This argument takes away from the productive discussion about how to set up a useful shoe beta-testing group, so I try to head it off by saying “Men and women tend to have different size feet.”

    2. Jennifer Thneed*

      Conversation isn’t math. In math & science, you need to be very precise. In (non-scientific) speech, you do not and should not be so precise. People will get hung up on the little words. Maybe your phrasing needs tweaking? You could try things like:

      “My experience suggests that x is true”
      “In many/most cases, x is the answer”
      “In this situation, x is the closest we can get to an answer”
      “X is often true; in this case we should verify by doing Y”

      These all include the information that you’re not 100% certain, but don’t include any actual words about how you’re not certain. Why is this important? Because of how humans are with speech and with relationships. (I could get into all kinds of detail but I’d prefer you to do the research yourself. You’ll learn more that way.) (See what I did? I asserted the thing I know with confidence plus encouraged you to read more.)

  41. Eric Flores*

    There is great feedback here and like others here, I’ve received this in my past. Initially, to hear from your manager that you need more”confidence” can feel like an attack directly to you. If you are not sure, what the manager is referring to, then I agree with some of the others, you need to ask. Three important things to rember:

    1) Your manager hired you because he/she believed that you can do the job that you are tasked to do. If they are feeling that you lack confidence in your work and you do not see it, do not be afraid to ask. ” I’m sorry, I don’t mean to seem naive, but what do you mean by lack of confidence?” Your manager will then proceed to go in detail on areas that you can strengthen.

    2) Feel confident in your work – Nobody likes to look bad in front of their manager. There is an old quote from Henry Ford, “Failure is only the opportunity to begin again, only this time more wisely.” However, through time we grow-up seeking other peoples approval, which lowers confidence

    3) Set Standards for yourself – There is a difference between goals/and standards. I have someone set goals as well as standards. The standards are expectation levels an individual expects of him/herself. The goals as you all know, are evaluated by the manager, but the employee evaluates him/herself on her own standards that they previously set for themselves.

    A GOOD manager will schedule you on the calandar and talk to you.
    A GREAT manager will take the time to speak with you.

  42. LW*

    Hi all!
    Thank you for your very helpful comments. I’m sorry I didn’t interact sooner — I just got back from the rural area in Madagascar where I work and I just got internet.
    I feel like I should clarify the situation a bit.
    When I wrote this, I was really struggling. I have been jumping through many hoops for my boss, taking on every extra project he “suggested” and otherwise was trying to be the perfect employee. This resulted in me working on about 5 projects at once when I’m only supposed to be doing 1. And he still wasn’t happy with me. When I asked him then to clarify what he meant my a “lack of confidence” during my probation, he said that it “just didn’t seem like I was confident in myself and my knowledge” and that I ask a lot of questions. While it is true that I’m often apologetic and non-confrontational, the things I was doing were not outside what would be considered the norm. I was a new employee joining a project that he has been working on for three years. Double checking with him what he wanted me to do did not seem unreasonable to me and still doesn’t. Since the probation, I have been working on making my language more assertive but that hasn’t been very well received either.
    Communication has been an issue with him with me being characterized as “too apologetic and tentative” one day and “too aggressive and thoughtless” the next. As it stands, other employees are making it clear that I’m not the only person who he treats this way though I’m likely getting the brunt of it as I work with him quite closely. I often feel — and maybe it’s from my history of abuse but it doesn’t seem that way judging by what other employees are finally telling me — that I have to say the right thing the exact right way for him to not get angry at me or sullen or moody.
    At this point it looks like I will have to have a conversation with him about how differently he talks to certain people, notably women/female presenting people he finds unattractive (me– thank goodness for being fat, it’s a great jerk detector) and members of our national staff (our team). Basically, it’s apparently a well known secret that he’s incredibly sexist and racist. He pretty much only gets along with the conventionally attractive female/female presenting international staff members and male international staff members.
    While I will be leaving soon (thank God because my mental health cannot take this environment of living on pins and needles again), I am really concerned on how he will treat any future employee. Especially if they’re not a cis white male or a cis white thin female. I will do my best to send any updates as they occur but for now I’m just keeping my head down and trying to get my terrifying backlog of work done before I go.

  43. LW*

    I should also mention that if he actually accepted my suggestions and decisions for my side of the project, it wouldn’t be an issue but he often micromanages or gives me incorrect information. For instance, I was trying to create a budget for him for some scientific tests we have to perform on our project. He gave me a set budget and asked me to include some new tests which he thought would be worth doing. After working with that budget and providing several options including the tests he asked for, he then told me that I was asking for much too much money even though I know the budget has not changed. He has also regularly questioned my ability to do scientific and statistical tests which I have done for years in various settings. While before I thought there might be a valid reason as to why he does things like this, I’m becoming more and more certain that the issues I’m facing in my work environment are a result of him as a person rather than me and my abilities and that my “confidence issues” were just another thing for him to use to show his authority over me.

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